In January, Science Magazine named the new James Webb Space Telescope as its Scientific Breakthrough of the Year for 2022. The new space telescope, named after James Webb, a former NASA administrator but now officially referred to as ‘JWST,’ has been described as “the gold-plated wunderkind of astronomy.”
It was built by NASA with the help of the European and Canadian space agencies, and experts say is the most-complex science mission ever put into space. It cost $10 billion and took 20 years to build. Once it was launched into space, NASA engineers and scientists held their breath while the telescope’s giant sun shield was finally unfurled and its golden mirror unleashed on the universe.
I’m sure you saw some of the images sent back by JWST, crystal-clear images of thousands of galaxies, some seen as they existed 13 billion years ago. The images from the JWST make similar images from the old Hubble Telescope look like Kodak Instamatic prints taken by a monkey with severely limited photographic skills.
There’s no question the JWST telescope deserves the honor of being Science’s Breakthrough of the Year. I have not been this excited about a scientific breakthrough since CERN fired up The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland back in 2008. In case you’ve forgotten, the Collider is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world. It sends protons accelerating at close to the speed of light in a long, super-chilled tube in opposite directions until they collide in an effort to recreate in the laboratory the state of the universe immediately following the Big Bang, the cataclysmic explosion that created the universe and made possible such things as the sun, the moon, the stars, and reality dating shows on TV.
CERN is hoping the Collider will allow scientists to better understand time and space and possibly prove the existence of the long-theorized but as yet unseen Higgs boson, the suspected dark matter building block of the universe. At the time they first hit the on switch of the Collider, there was a possibility that the collision of the accelerated protons might result in an explosion throwing off showers of highly charged quarks and gobs of dark matter that could tear a hole in space and push our galaxy into another dimension while unleashing microscopic black holes that could collapse other stars and suck the entire universe into an impenetrable void. Not to mention voiding the warranty on the Collidor. Luckily, that didn’t happen, although I’m sure there are days since then when many of us have wished that it had.
While I want to celebrate the JWST as much as I celebrated the Collider, I find myself again asking the same question: What the hell kind of name is “JWST” for such a monumental human achievement? Had they asked back in 2008 to come up with a more relatable and popular name for the Collider, I could have given them “Hal,” “Colliderscope,” “The Particrasher,” “The Big Banger,” “Puff the Magic Hadron” or “Mr. Twirly Beams.”
In this case, wouldn’t we all be even more excited about the JWST if it had been named “Double Hubble,” “Golden Eye,” “The Great Voyeur” or “Muriel”?
I have to admit that the JWST breakthrough came at a good time for me. For many years I was pretty bullish on technology and innovation — you know, things like the wheel, electricity, indoor plumbing and microbreweries. But lately, I’ve found it hard to get as excited as more recent technological advances, assuming things like TikTok and Twitter are technological advances rather than signs of the impending Apocalypse.
But JWST and the glimpse it has given us behind the curtains into the origins of our existence have renewed my hope about what the future might hold for us as a species. Now, if I can only get scientists to check with me before anyone names the next big breakthrough…
Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a monthly humor column for this newspaper.